You have to admire Coach Mark Turgeon’s refreshing candor about the Maryland men’s basketball team. People in his line of work rarely tell it like it is. But Turgeon is more interested in the product than the spin. And in only his second season of a rebuilding project, Turgeon is too busy to waste time making excuses.
The straight talk continued after the Terrapins pulled off their biggest victory since Gary Williams and Greivis Vasquez partnered to produce fun times in College Park. Alex Len’s tip-in off an air-balled shot by Pe’Shon Howard with 0.9 of a second to play Wednesday night was the difference in Maryland’s 51-50 upset of No. 14 North Carolina State. Students rushed the court, players hugged, everyone danced — and then Turgeon provided some needed perspective.
Before the coach met with reporters, a school media relations official encouraged Turgeon to keep it positive about Maryland’s first victory over a top 25 team since it defeated Duke on March 3, 2010. Instead, Turgeon kept it real.
Sure, the Terrapins’ losing streak to ranked opponents ended at 17 games, and they rebounded after consecutive ACC losses. But against the Wolfpack, Maryland was confused on offense, seemingly incapable of following the simplest instructions.
“We were 0 for timeouts,” Turgeon said, the frustration evident in his voice. “There wasn’t one timeout they did what I asked. Not one.” And shooting? Forget about it. For the third straight game, Maryland made less than 40 percent of its field goal attempts.
Shaky performances don’t cut it for Turgeon. He’s also not the type to settle for occasional surprising victories. Never has been. Turgeon came to Maryland to win big. Obviously, he’s not there yet. History, however, indicates he will be eventually.
“I knew I’d have to go through some ups and downs to get it to where I want it,” Turgeon said. “But I’ve taken over programs before, so that really didn’t concern me. . . . You just figure out what needs to be done . . . and do it.”
The first thing that needed to be done at Maryland was obvious, even to Turgeon’s predecessor.
“When I talked to Gary [Williams] before I took the job, he said: ‘Mark, you’ve got to upgrade the talent. It’s just not where it needs to be to be successful,’ ” Turgeon recalled. “He was honest with me. I knew what I was getting into.”
In recruiting, Maryland wasn’t competing with the ACC’s upper-echelon teams. There’s no shame in losing top recruits to the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. But the Terrapins should have won more head-to-head battles with other schools for players throughout their talent-rich state.
Turgeon knew what needed to be done: Maryland had to get after it hard in recruiting. As a young assistant, Turgeon cut his teeth under Larry Brown and Roy Williams. In the history of college basketball, few have been more successful than Brown and Williams at signing top prep players and building great college programs. Even the best coaches usually look smarter with loaded rosters.
Turgeon lacked strong recruiting ties in this part of the country. Since accepting the job, Turgeon and his staff have worked overtime to build relationships that could help Maryland — one day — attract the highest-rated prep players to Comcast Center. Their efforts have already paid off.
Despite Turgeon’s honesty about the Terrapins’ shortcomings, it’s important to remember that two freshmen and three sophomores are starters. At 7 feet 1, Len is emerging as one of the ACC’s best big men in his sophomore season. He tops Maryland in scoring and ranks among the conference’s leaders in rebounding and blocked shots. Freshman forward Charles Mitchell is a solid rebounder. Freshman guard Seth Allen has a big-time scorer’s mentality and possesses the skills to produce.
There’s also good stuff happening on defense. The Terrapins played strong post defense against North Carolina State. For the most part, they also did a good job in their half-court rotations and closed out on shooters well. The Terrapins’ energy on defense was a key factor in the Wolfpack shooting only 31.1 percent from the field. That’s impressive.
But even after Wednesday night’s win, the Terrapins (14-3, 2-2) don’t look like a team speeding toward the NCAA tournament. Maryland lost to Kentucky — which is a far cry from the team that won last season’s national title — in the only non-cupcake game on its nonconference schedule. In conference play, as Turgeon has explained in detail, it seems the Terrapins can’t even tie their shoes properly.
“We can’t even run a play I draw up,” Turgeon said. “Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
The Terrapins still have a long way to go. Turgeon will have to keep pushing to improve the roster. He’ll need to tinker with the lineup until it’s just right. But Turgeon has no doubts he’ll get the job done — and that’s just being honest.
For more by Jason Reid, visit www.washingtonpost.com/reid.